Preserving the Planet

Church Fossil Fuel Divestment: Operation Noah’s Bright Now Campaign

Church fossil fuel divestment is an increasingly prevalent trend in response to the dire threats posed by climate change. In the UK, one Christian charity has called on faith institutions to use their investment portfolios to divest from companies that actively develop fossil fuel deposits and support firms that offer clean energy solutions instead.

The campaign, called Bright Now, was started by Operation Noah, an organization of theologians founded in 2004 to raise awareness about climate change and its disastrous consequences.

Sounding the Call to Action

In 2012, Operation Noah issued the Ash Wednesday Declaration, which urged Christians to become cognizant of the issues raised by climate change and argued that caring for the planet “should be central to the church’s mission.” A year later, in its Bright Now report, the group called on churches and the Christian community to agree to church fossil fuel divestment, take a role in debating the ethics of investing in fossil fuels, and support the development of clean alternatives to fossil fuels, such as solar and wind power.

The campaigners noted that many churches, which often have sizable endowments, have already adopted ethical investing practices by excluding firearms, gambling, alcohol, or tobacco companies from their stock portfolios. But many churches are still invested in fossil fuel companies.

“As Christians, how can we hear the science and its implications and not act by realigning our investment strategies with a vision for a sustainable future?” the Bright Now report asked. Many churches have already restructured or are in the process of restructuring their portfolios to exclude fossil fuels. Others are using shareholder engagement to push companies to perform better on environmental issues.

Making the Case

The report also made a financial argument for church fossil fuel divestment, saying that many energy companies have trillions of dollars tied up in fossil fuel reserves. These companies will “have to leave most of their assets in the ground if we are to keep climate change below 2°C.”

It added that this predicament could indicate that these companies are vastly overvalued. The Bright Now study found that churches had divested more than $50 billion from fossil fuel companies but that the Church of England maintains “significant investments” in major oil and gas companies. “A low-carbon sustainable economy would prioritize well-being, decrease fuel poverty in the longer term, and generate jobs,” it said.

Finding Middle Ground

Churches aren’t unalterably opposed to energy companies, Bright Now argued—simply those that continue to search for and develop more fossil fuel resources.

“An ethical approach by fossil companies, which would merit church encouragement, would see them progressively diversifying into renewable technologies at a pace consistent with the mounting crisis and ceasing to lobby on behalf of fossil fuel expansion,” the campaigners said.

Perhaps foreshadowed by the fact that churches were early proponents of socially responsible investing, divesting from industries they deemed objectionable, the movement has garnered significant support. While they may not echo church members’ support of divestment campaigns specifically, many large asset managers are researching the integration of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) factors in their investment decision making process.

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